Machine politics are alive and well, speaker says

Christie Ileto

Years of ethnic, religious and class divisions caused political corruption in Chicago, a city known for back room deals and sleazy politics, former Chicago Sun-Times journalist James Merriner said at a public forum at Evanston Public Library on Wednesday night.

Merriner discussed the failed attempts to reform politics in Chicago and his new book, “Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago: 1833-2003,” to an audience of 11 Chicago and Evanston residents at the public library, 1703 Orrington Ave.

“I (am) going to explain once and for all why Chicago is so corrupt,” said Merriner, as the rain pounded the windows and the small audience of adults laughed at his opening remarks.

Merriner, who currently is a freelance journalist, said he was first presented with the idea to write his new book when he was researching corruption in national politics for another book on former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who served a 17-month sentence for mail fraud between 1996 and 1997.

Political corruption has been rampant in Chicago for more than a century and has stigmatized the city, he said.

“It’s a system that cries out for cutting deals, cutting corners and private handshakes,” Merriner said. “I bet Chicago is still essentially activated by private handshakes behind closed doors.”

Machine politics — when politicians give friends favors and positions — is the primary form of discreet political corruption in Chicago and has kept many people out of the city, he added.

Merriner said the “Goo Goos” reference for the title of his new book is short for good government.

“Reformers were often labeled this uncomplimentary term when counterbalancing corruption in machine politics,” he said.

The event was funded by the library’s Kaye Family Endowment Fund, which sponsors adult education programs at the library.

Chicago resident Virginia Gibbons, 52, agreed with Merriner’s point about corruption “behind closed doors.”

“This is a chilling effect on the greatness of the city because people inside are so involved with helping each other that they forget about the corruption happening around them,” said Gibbons, who said she is the great-granddaughter of a former Chicago alderman.

Gibbons added that the city has tried to rid itself of its notorious corruption over the past century, but corruption continues to linger in Chicago — a point Merriner also emphasized.

Merriner argued that the current high unemployment and crime rates are a product of these machines.

“In college, people tell you machine politics are dead,” he said. “Don’t believe them.”